In Part One of our series on Six Flags Power Plant, we learned about how the attraction could have changed Six Flags as we know it today. In Part Two, we find out how it ultimately did change the industry. Today, we learn from our guest Gary Goddard exactly why he thinks the Power Plant had to close it’s doors. Several factors contributed to it’s demise and Gary’s answers are both candid and eye opening. Enjoy.
Josh Young: Why do you think the Power Plant wasn’t a success and ultimately closed?
GG: Hindsight is 20/20, but actually we were very aware of certain decisions that we felt were going to harm the project and we made Six Flags aware of them. So here is where things went awry:
1. “THERE WILL BE NO RIDES IN THE POWER PLANT”: This mandate is the first and foremost reason for the failure of the project. This was Six Flags ridiculous position from a company that was known for their rides. This was a fatal decision that came early on. We fought them on it for the better part of a year until we got that letter – the one that said “THERE WILL BE NO RIDES IN THE POWER PLANT,” which made it very clear. We were told in that letter – ordered really — to never to bring it up again – not in meetings and not in letters. (We had been fighting hard on both fronts, letters and meetings, to get at least two rides into the project – a coaster that would zip through the interior of the building and then shoot outside and over the harbor, which would have given us a great marquee for the attraction. Also, a free fall ride that would be inside one of the four smokestacks. It would have launched people up through the smokestack and giving them a short glimpse of the Inner Harbor as it popped OUT of the smokestack just before they fell back down the chute.) We tried for a Carousel in the big Entry Hall. We tried for hanging ride system throughout the interior upper space of the main building for a “flying tour” of the entire place. Every single ride idea was vigorously dismissed. Honestly, we tried to tell them, “You are Six Flags. You are known for RIDES. We’re not saying turn this into a ride park, but we should have at least a few “ but they would not hear of it. To me, this was the #1 problem.
2. “WALK-THROUGHS DON’T WORK”: In addition, when I would take any of the old Disney guys through the concept, when I would get to The Laboratory of Wonders and The Circus of the Mysterious, each one (in separate presentations to Al Bertino, to Marc Davis and later to Herb Ryman) would ask, “Is this a walk-through?” And I would say “yes” and they would kind of shake their heads and say, “Walk-through’s don’t work…” I would nod in agreement and say “I know, but we don’t have any choice because Six Flags won’t let us do any rides and we only have space for two theatres” and they would shake their heads. “Walk-through’s don’t work” is a mantra and honestly, they were right. The walk-through’s were a direct result of the maxim “no rides” and it was not like there were any other options. The unique space requirements of the old building meant we had to create shows in tight spaces.
3. “NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK”: Another reason was the marketing – or the mis-marketing – of the entire project. As we were developing the concept, Six Flags management did a couple of hard-to-understand things in the area of marketing. The big one I remember is that they hung a huge banner on the building about 6 or 8 months before the opening. And it said “NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK” in big bold letters. I got into town for a site visit and immediately asked why they had put that sign up. The marketing company said, “That’s the start of our campaign!” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Tell me about it?” And they show me a series of lines: “NOT A MUSEUM – NOT A MALL – NOT A THEME PARK” and so on. The idea, they told me, is that every couple of weeks, they would change out the banner so people will wonder what the Power Plant is. And me, being young and opinionated, I said, “Well that seems like a really negative approach. Why are we telling people what it’s NOT? Why aren’t we telling people what it is?” Everyone was silent, but then a big debate ensured and I was totally against the idea of “NOT” and the meeting ended with no decision. Well what happened then was that Six Flags agreed that the campaign wasn’t good, but instead of changing plans, nothing really happened for months and months and they allowed that banner (“NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK”) to stay on the building. So the ONLY message Six Flags put out, inadvertently, was NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK. The power of marketing became clear to me when I flew in to Baltimore for meetings on the project months later, and getting into a taxi, started a conversation as I always would. I would get around to, “So anything new going on in town? Anything interesting?” to see if they would mention the Power Plant. When they wouldn’t mention it I would then say, “Hey, do you know anything about this Power Plant thing?” Well on this trip, after that banner had been hanging on the side of the building for months, I would pose my question, “Do you know anything about this Power Plant thing?” And without missing a beat the cabbie says “Well, I know one thing about it,” and I would say, “Oh, tell me,” and he said, “Well, it’s not an amusement park.” And I thought to myself Six Flags has really screwed the pooch.
4. LACK OF TASTE/LACK OF QUALITY CONTROL: The Six Flags Power Plant management team, while meaning well and with the best of intentions – really had no idea about show quality, entertainment or about how to market this new kind of attraction. The list of errors are too many to recount, but this particular event is a great example of how there was just no sense of professionalism when it came to the idea of “good show/bad show.” I was in Baltimore to walk through the facility and check progress on the total site. While there, the President and GM asks me to come up to this office to see something. So we head to his office. He happily tells me that his staff has made a walk-around character of “Mr. Electro” – the Marc Davis designed host of the Magic Lantern Theatre — and they are planning to have him hand out free tickets for Taxi Drivers down on the street in front of the Power Plant. I say “sounds good” and they proudly march in this poor kid in the most amateur costume I have ever seen. Mr. Electro could be a fantastic walk around. Instead this guy walks in and is in a suit made of cardboard and wrapped in tinfoil. His face is a mask purchased in a Halloween store. It is the most god-awful amateurish thing I have ever seen. I was literally speechless because I know I was about to tell all these people who are so proud of this creation the honest truth. The GM is asking, “What do you think?” I finally just say, “Well I can appreciate the effort you all have put into this, but you are NOT going to actually take this guy out onto the street are you? I mean, not meaning to insult anyone, but this is a very amateur costume. This is a poor Halloween costume that you might find on a junior high student. You are SIX FLAGS. This character will represent you and Six Flags and the Power Plant.” I go on to say that if you go out in public with this, you will send the wrong message. If people take photos of this, it will send the wrong message. They tried to argue with me, but I told them in clear terms, “This is amateur and of very low quality. You cannot send this out into the public.” They wound up ignoring me only to be told by the public how pathetic the costume was.
5. MARKETING LEADING UP TO OPENING DAY and THE LAST MINUTE OPENING CEREMONY: Leading up to the opening, when we expected to see marketing, commercials and such, Six Flags was playing things close to the vest. No pre-sales of tickets and no major advertising push. Most importantly, they decided not to announce the opening time for fear of “a stampede for tickets” and “lines down the block.” I looked at them as if I was in Wonderland talking to the Mad Hatter. Being from the theatre and movie business, I said, “Lines around the block are good,” but was told by the Six Flags Power Plant President and General Manager, in an angry tone, “I will not have our guests waiting in lines for hours under the sun.“ So, I jokingly said, “So, the opening time is a secret?” And he said, not appreciating my sense of irony, “We are going to avoid having a thousands of people trying to get in.“ This was about a month before opening. At that time, no opening ceremony was planned either. We argued that we should have “something,” shouldn’t we?
At the last minute, about two-to-three weeks out, they come to us in a panic and said, “Can you put an opening show together? We think we do need do to something.” So with a very limited budget, we put together a live show with singers and dancers. But since we were opening at 10:00 a.m. or thereabouts and without any real pre-sale or any attempt to create excitement, the “NOT AN AMUSEMENT PARK” opened to a very small crowd and flat ticket sales. The President and GM of the Power Plant had succeeded in meeting his goal: There were no lines around the block, and there were no crowds pushing to get in. It was the limpest non-opening I have ever experienced in my life.
There was also the budget, but I don’t want to cry about that. White it was very limited, I believe we could have still created something unique, though of course rides WOULD have meant more money. I think the budget for the total project was $27 million, $8 million of which was allocated to “show,” meaning attractions, theming, décor, signage, etc. Essentially the total guest experience. So we did the project on a shoestring. And they probably didn’t want to have rides because it would have meant adding to the budget. But to me, the failure was not so much due to budget in this case, but due to a management approach that was not in sync with the times, that did not understand their target market, and who definitely did not understand their own brand. Walt Disney once said, “You may not realize it when it happens, but sometimes a kick in the teeth is the best thing in the world for you.” For me and for all of us at Landmark at the time, the combined wallop of the Power Plant, and less than a year later the Six Flags Admiral project, were our “kick in the teeth” from which we learned a number of painful lessons. Those lessons informed our approach to design and production forever after.
About a year after the Power Plant opened, I got a letter from a new attorney (and Vice President) from Six Flags. As you will see, he was very new and had no idea of the history of the Power Plant. Essentially this letter stated that they were considering suing us. And the reason was “How could a design company create a theme park without any rides?” Seriously. They were going to sue me and my company because we were, apparently, too stupid to understand the project needed rides. So I went to my files, pulled about a dozen or so choice letters which I had sent to Six Flags over a year or so of development, with yellow highlights on the key sections where I stated (over and over) the need for rides. Or even for A SINGLE RIDE. I finished my package with the final letter from Six Flags that said the now famous, “THERE WILL BE NO RIDES IN THE POWER PLANT.” I concluded by saying that if Six Flags sued me, it would require me to counter sue them since it was Six Flag who demanded no rides. That ended the discussion and any threat of a suit.
Here is where the utter frustration of working with a corporate entity comes to comical and sad ending. The very Vice President and Attorney who had threatened legal action was impressed with the letters I sent. He called me back about a month later and said, “Six Flags is going to spend some money to try and make The Power Plant better. I would like to meet with you to discuss your ideas.” I said great. I came up with several thoughts and brought back some of our original ideas for rides as well. We met about a week later at his office and I talked about the things we could do. They said they didn’t want to spend more than $2 million maximum on the redo. I looked at him somewhat confused. I said, “Well, for $2 million we can’t do that much…” I started to go into how we could add a couple rides, inexpensively, but requiring more than $2 million. And I bet you can’t guess what he said. He said, “Gary, there are not going to be any rides in the Power Plant.”
Editor’s Note: If the Six Flags Power Plant had been a success through the addition of rides, it could have been a turning point for the entire company. They could have diversified their offerings from not only thrill parks, but other standalone attractions like these new urban entertainment centers. In reality, they could have become a mega brand in the industry similar to Merlin Entertainment, the largest operator of attractions in the world. They not only own theme parks like Legoland and Alton Towers, they also own Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, the London Eye and dozens more.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. However, the themed entertainment industry benefited from this as there is now a 4D movie in nearly every theme park in the world. In addition, even though Six Flags Power Plant was a failure, many people and companies got their start through this project and went on to have very successful careers using this as a springboard. Many thanks again to Gary Goddard for taking the time to share this story and dozens of photos with us at Theme Park University!
Gary sent us so much artwork, I couldn’t squeeze it all in. We will have one more article on the Six Flags Power Plant with concept art of attractions (including rides!) that never came to be. In addition, we will have concept art from Disney Legends like Marc Davis! Make sure to follow Theme Park University on Facebook or Twitter to catch the latest!